At the top of Tottenham Court Road, this most appropriately named alley was until recently home to the government’s private art collection.

Not always though, as it’s an alley that has changed a lot since it was first laid out in the late 1700s when fields were replaced with streets and houses.

The alley appears as soon as the area starts developing in the late 1700s, and shows up on Horwood’s map as being mainly occupied by Jones Taylor & Co – a tin plate factory. Much of the surrounding buildings appear small, so are probably homes and small workshops, but by the 19th century, most of that has gone and the area is dominated by a handful of large warehouses.

Although it’s unnamed on early maps of the area, it also shows up in the 19th century as Queen’s Yard.

During WW2, most of the buildings fronting the alley were damaged by bombs, and while the alley itself wasn’t damaged, enough buildings around it were that post-war clearances saw the area change radically.

Although the alley is still mostly the back of buildings, those buildings are very interesting.

Setting aside my personal curious delight in big pipes…

Wander around to the north, and you have Shropshire House, a 1930s Art Deco building by the architects Waite & Waite that just oozes the style of the era.

It’s a pity it’s on a side street as it needs to be on a much wider road so you can stand back and admire the decorative curves and details. From the elaborate planter above the doors to the strict lines that demark the former warehouse and office spaces, it’s a total delight.

At the far end used to be the Royal Ear Hospital, a building from 1927 and designed by Wimperis and Simpson Architects in a typical dark brick design. It was supposed to be grander, but cost-cutting put paid to that. Opened by Neville Chamberlain in 1927, it was notable for having private wards for the middle-classes to use, in the days before the NHS when medical care was either charity or for the very rich.

That was torn down in the past few years and a modern building erected that houses University College London Hospitals‘ ear, nose, throat and dental clinics.

The old building used to have a very grand stone crest on the side where the main entrance used to be. It’s rather nice that the crest was saved, and is now sitting next to the new entrance around the side of the building.

Up on the roof, hidden away is a large roof garden for staff and patients.

The most notable occupant of the alley, with an entrance here rather than around on the main roads, was of necessity an organisation that shunned too much publicity, for here was the store for the Government Art Collection.

Often diplomats and ministers would arrive quietly, go in via a fairly anonymous door and upstairs to select works of art that would adorn British embassies around the world, and Minister’s offices in Whitehall.

Some have strong views about what they want, while others are more open to using the art collection to show off British artists, especially in overseas embassies.

In fact, the Government Art Collection is often used as a form of soft power by governments over the years, and they will often pick pieces that show off British culture to its best for foreign visitors to admire.

Ministers and ambassadors no longer visit though. Ministerial cars won’t pass through the overhang to pull up at that anonymous door.

The collection is moving to Whitehall next year.

The alley is now rather more ordinary, no longer a hidden heart of British diplomatic power abroad.


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One comment
  1. JP says:

    I’m a fan of them pipes too. Someone wasn’t afraid to show a bit of pride in his work there I reckon.
    Lucky enough to visit said art collection, I was struck dumb (yes even verbose moi) by mile upon mile of the, well, pig wire on steroids holding up gem after gem.
    Don’t know what the solution is but they’re ours aren’t they really and should be on display for all to see. If Ambassador Sir Doodah Whatsit requests one for our embassy in far-flungsville, then a little card and a print would suffice.
    Perhaps the paintings and other artwork could be a fillip to regional galleries by going on a national tour. There are many, many corkers and even though they’ve been moved to a more friendly climate in a tin shed somewhere, the artists didn’t intend them to be staring out at the back of the next one along in this Alladin’s cave.

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